Music and Corporate Worship: The Balance between Spirit and Truth

“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge”
– Proverbs 19:2

“God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth”
– John 4:24

Worship of God is directed by God in His Word. In our fervor to worship as His people, we often make mistakes in the manner in which we bring our worship. Music, because it is an emotional vehicle for worship, and one which is subject to preference, can present some challenges. Yet with a biblically balanced foundation we can have God-honoring music in worship. Here are some pitfalls to avoid as well as some balance to promote:

Reckless abandon (spirit without truth).
“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge”
– Proverbs 19:2
“God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in . . . truth”
– John 4:24

Reckless abandon in regards to song choice for worship, is music with no restraint. It sounds very spiritual. The attitude from advocates might be that we do not want to stifle the Holy Spirit’s leading. We ought to allow our Spirit-controlled emotions to move how we worship. How is this controlling God?

Basically, reckless abandon is setting our emotions as the criteria for right worship. Emotions, though, then become the prime principle for right worship over and above God’s Word. Thankfully God has given us His Word which directs how our hearts ought to worship. Hopefully, we strive to worship in spirit (yes), and truth. The truth of the words ought to move both the music which accompanies as well as the emotions which follow. His truth oversees, or guides, our spirit. Our hearts are sinfully drawn to worship selfishly but the Word draws us to a balance of truth and spirit.

Liturgy for the sake of safety (truth without spirit)
“God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit . . .”
– John 4:24

This extreme leads to dead orthodoxy, or cold religion. If reckless abandon is dangerous in its lack of Godly truth-control, blind liturgy is dangerous for its cold form from too much control.

We can become so fearful of change or doing the wrong thing, that a knee-jerk reaction takes place and we find no place for emotion. The words become sterile and unfeeling and we are discouraged from emoting. This too is controlling God by keeping Spirit-induced emotion at bay.

Closing the canon on hymnody. Using preference as main criteria for biblical worship.

There is a real temptation to not shake the tree any more than necessary by not allowing for any diverse music into the church. Yet this is irresponsible to the continuing work of God in and among the Church. Granted, there has been little music composed in the last century worth utilizing. But this is a new day!

We are seeing a revival of hymnody. A resurgence of Reformed theology has brought with it a hunger and thirst for rich words accompanied by engaging music. In my own denomination’s ministry, pastors and congregants alike, have been instrumental in writing new music and offering it to the Church. Students, pastors, and church musicians have come in contact with old hymns and have re-worked them so that they are more singable to today’s ear and have given us a vast quantity of songs from which to choose.

A new love for old hymns.
Hymns are didactic by nature. That is, they teach us theology. Putting new tunes to old hymns has caused new and old ears alike to love hymns and to love what they say and stand for. Folks who thought the hymns of old were cold and boring, now embrace the richness of the historicity and theological depth of the hymns.

So what is our responsibility as a church in relation to God’s working today through music in the church?

Biblically responsible

We are to be biblically responsible for the music we sing. “Spirit and truth” worship means that we sing songs which convey the deep soul-refreshing words of Scripture so that people are brought before the throne of grace. We also utilize music which accompanies the words well, conveying the rich sentiment of the words so that it helps, not hinders, a proper understanding of the text of the song.

Culturally relevant

What?! Christians live in culture too. Cultures change. Music changes with culture. There is nothing especially sacred about 18th century hymnody as opposed to 21st century hymnody. The musical styles within our own Trinity hymnal show the wide diversity between eras. Look at the dates of the songs in the hymnal and you will see some written as far back as the 4th century and as recent as 1984! Listen to the different tunes for those eras and you will hear distinct cultural differences.

The revival of hymnody within our culture is catching on!


We need to be willing to learn. Are you one who is more prone towards newer tunes? Learn the hymns! Don’t neglect the work of God among the Church throughout history. Are you one to disdain change and things new? Try it. See the end goal. Help the church to teach well the richness of our faith through song.

Our View of the Gathered Church is Far Too Small

Do we know what a privilege it is to gather in this life with other believers week after week?  I propose that our view of Sunday worship is way too shallow because we view God’s work and God’s people from a wrong perspective.

We have been promised in this life to be sown among unbelievers.  Zechariah 10:9 reads,“Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return”  (See also Matthew 28:19-2-).  It is our task . . . to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5).  We are not here to be served by the pleasures of this life and to bask in the temporary and futile things of this world.  We are not here to insulate ourselves or our families.  We are a people who have a promised home that will last for all of eternity, but as for now, we are sojourners and pilgrims whom God has placed here to bring His hope to a dying world.  Yet we are coddled by our wants and desires.  We are satisfied easily with our comforts.  Martin Luther wrote, “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies.  And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people.  O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ!  If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?”

Therefore, church often becomes for us a playground for friendship and fun.  We come late (because the sermon is all that really matters).  We leave early (heaven forbid I meet someone new or risk a difficult conversation that I should but don’t want to have).  We look for comfortable people who will accept us into their conversation.  We talk about our hobbies and interests more than we do our struggles and hopes of reconciliation.   Rather than our gathering being with a people to whom we confess our sins, seek equipping, find solace, and receive encouragement in the battle of our own hearts and the hearts of the world, we come together to get what we desire from people who are like us.

Please don’t get me wrong.  The gathering of the church ought to be a respite from the war, but are we really at war?  Are we not going from playground to playground . . . from the playground of the world to the playground of our church?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friend, Bethge, writes, “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility.”  Bonhoeffer, who desired to be a pacifist in Nazi Germany, saw this sin falling on himself, took his stand, and was eventually executed for it.  Yet on his way from this temporary affliction of sojourning to the gallows, Bonhoeffer turned to a fellow prison camp inmate and said, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”  We have a greater responsibility than we like to admit.  We are so self-consumed that the bigger picture of God-at-work-in-and-through-us for His kingdom is shrunk down to my personal little world of ease.

What if we were at war?  Not with sinner’s out there, but for the hearts and minds of people just like us who have no hope because they do not have Christ?  What if we were really about having our sin exposed, hating it, seeing it put to death by the gospel of grace, taking others with the same struggle by the hand to show them our Savior for life?  What would Sunday church service be to us then?  It would be nothing less than worship of the God that draws us together to draw on Him.  Church would become a necessity like a pool of water in a vast desert.  The people gathered would be brothers and sisters of the same struggles exhorting, encouraging, praying toward the One hope we have in Jesus.  What ambassadors we would become!

” . . . It is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.  It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament.  Not all Christians receive such blessing.  The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone.  They know the visible fellowship is a blessing” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together).

Do we know what a privilege it is to gather in this life with other believers week after week?